Dean’s Q&A: David Thomas Of Georgetown McDonough

David Thomas, dean of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. Photo courtesy of McDonough School of Business

David Thomas, dean of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. Photo courtesy of McDonough School of Business

To pry David Thomas away from a two decade-long stint as a professor at Harvard Business School, it was going to take a very “compelling” opportunity.Thomas had spent time in leadership roles at Harvard running portions of the first year curriculum, being a department chair, and serving as a senior associate dean. Multiple suitors came to woo Thomas from his Harvard post, with no avail. That is, until Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business came knocking.

“I think search firms type into Google ‘senior associate deans at business school,’ and then they generate a list,” Thomas explains. “And over the course of several years, I was presented with different opportunities and none of them seemed more compelling than what I was doing at the Harvard Business School. And then Georgetown came along and it had several things I thought were compelling.”

Among the most compelling aspects of McDonough, Thomas mentions a new state-of-the-art facility that was a “dramatic upgrade.” He also cites the research orientation and resources of the faculty. Finally, he was drawn to the school’s Jesuit values and commitment to developing business men and women dedicated to service and helping others.

As the schools who courted Thomas indicated, if there was anyone prepared to lead a b-school, it was him. Between his time as a student and educator, Thomas spent time at Yale, Columbia, Pennsylvania’s Wharton, Harvard, and now Georgetown. And when the opportunity came for Thomas to take the helm of a top b-school, he came with guns blazing. Thomas aimed to shake up everything from overhauling the MBA curriculum to expanding global experiences to radically increasing the diversity of the students and faculty.

IMPROVEMENTS AND INNOVATIONS HAVE LED TO INCREASED DEMAND

Four years into his five year contract, Thomas has done just that. He’s been instrumental in the development of the Global Business Experience, which is a program that places students in teams to learn about an industry in a different country. The teams examine a problem and culminate the trip by presenting solutions to the company’s c-suite.

Thomas has also helped develop the First Year Seminar, which is a course taught by faculty in their respective areas of expertise and includes intensive writing and a service component. He has also led efforts and a task force to establish the Professional Development Center through the Office of Undergraduate Programs.

What’s more, Thomas has successfully diversified the faculty and increased fundraising success. Since he joined Georgetown, representation of women, underrepresented minorities, and international backgrounds on faculty has increased to 57%. The school also had to adjust (in a good way) its five-year capital campaign goal from $100 million to $125 million because Thomas has already helped amass $110 million—four years into the campaign.

Students and their parents, alike have taken notice of the improvements. For the first year class entering this fall, the school sifted through 3,373 applications and offered admissions to 548 for an acceptance rate of 16.2%—on par with many top b-schools. The interest was reciprocated with 310 planning to enter the school this fall for a yield of 56.6%.

In the following interview, Thomas tells Poets&Quants why an undergraduate business education at Georgetown is not an “MBA light”; why Georgetown continues to see jumps in demand for the program; and how the movie defining this generation of future business leaders is The Social Network and no longer Wall Street.

What trends have you noticed in the undergraduate b-school market over the past view years, specifically with STEM majors becoming so popular?

We’ve definitely noticed increased interest in the undergraduate business program. So take, for example, that applications to our undergraduate program over the course of the last six years are up close to 30%. We were at about 2,800 in 2009 and this year we’re touching around 3,400 applications.

We also see it not just in terms of students applying to come directly into the business school, but also we’ve opened up a number of our offerings campus-wide. For example, our entrepreneurship program services the entire undergraduate population and I would dare say over the course of a year either through courses taken or activities students participate in, we’re probably touching one-fourth of undergraduate students here at Georgetown in addition to our own students.

So a few things in terms of the way I think it’s affecting majors. One, finance continues to be our largest major and has been traditionally at Georgetown. Increasingly, because of the interest in entrepreneurship, we find more of our students wanting to major in marketing because they see it directly linked to understanding how to create a product and then how to sell that product and put it in the marketplace.

We don’t have an entrepreneurship major, but we have something called the Entrepreneurship Fellows Program that is a sequence of courses our students take. And more and more students are interested in taking that sequence of courses as well.

Another area that’s increasing in interest among our students is technology. And here that’s housed in our operations and information management group. But there’s an increasing number of students wanting to take those courses in technology and relate it to business analytics.

The other trend I think we’re seeing and is common when people talk about this generation of students is an increasing interest in the intersection of business and society—whether it’s social entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility, or business and public policy—there’s a serious interest in how does business impact society. So we have a growing social enterprise interest here at the school. We’ve also seen significant interest in social impact funding amongst our students at both the undergrad and graduate level. At Georgetown, we’ve created something called the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation and a significant amount of that programming is joint between the business school and the center.

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